Weird History

What It Was Like To Be A Prisoner At The Tower Of London  

Melissa Sartore
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What was it like to live in the Tower of London? That depended on a prisoner's social position and personal wealth; however, even the most notable prisoners were subject to horrible fates. Many prisoners in the Tower of London faced torture and even death, but privileged inhabitants brought servants and threw feasts. 

The Tower of London didn't start off as a prison, but it certainly became one of the gnarliest places to send criminals and political enemies. The last executions at the Tower of London took place after World War II when Josef Jakobs was shot by firing squad. But between its origins and the final shot, the Tower of London offered a vast array of experiences for prisoners.

The First Prisoner At The Tower Of London Set The Tone For A Lot Of Later Captives
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The Tower of London was first used as a prison by King Henry I. After becoming king in 1100, Henry imprisoned Ranulf Flambard, the Royal Clerk who served his predecessor and brother, William Rufus, on charges of extortion and simony. Flambard was also the Bishop of Durham and, because of his flamboyant lifestyle, he was perceived as greedy and cruel.

In many ways, Flambard was a scapegoat for the unpopular policies William Rufus had implemented. Nonetheless, fhe ound himself in the Tower. Flambard was able to maintain his luxurious lifestyle while in confinement. He had an allowance, kept his servants, and ordered in the best food as he tried to maneuver his way out of prison through his political connections. None of his efforts worked so he took another approach - he planned his escape.  

Getting Guards Drunk Was An Effective Diversion For Escape
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The first prisoner, Ranulf Flambard, was allowed to bring in the best wines and hold large feasts and decided to use this to his advantage. He wined and dined his guards and used the occasion to discretely bring in a rope hidden in a wine cask.

After a long evening of food and drink, as the guards were appropriately drunk, Flambard was able to escape. According to legend, he lowered himself from the window of the Tower to associates waiting below with horses. Flambard and his accomplices fled England for Normandy where Flambard became Duke Robert's chief advisor. He later led Robert's military on an attempt to invade England but the efforts proved unsuccessful. Flambard was able to reconcile with Henry in 1101 and was restored to his former position at Durham. 

When Jacobite William Maxwell was imprisoned in the Tower of London during the early 18th century, he - and his wife - used booze to distract his guards. Lady Winifred Maxwell made the trip to London from their home in Scotland to ask the king for clemency for her husband. King George refused, so when Lady Maxwell, her maid, and two others visited William the night before he was to be executed, they distracted the guards with alcohol and women. While the guards were otherwise engaged, Lady Maxwell shaved her husband's beard and dressed him in women's clothing they had brought in. William and Winifred Maxwell escaped the Tower together and were later spirited out of England. 

By The Late 16th Century, Torture And The Tower Went Hand-In-Hand
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Conditions grew significantly worse for prisoners held in the Tower by the 16th century. Elite prisoners still took up residence, but during the mid-1500s, torture at the Tower became commonplace. As England found itself in the midst of religious crisis, heretics were brought to the Tower and tortured until they renounced Catholicism. One Jesuit priest, Father John Gerard, returned to his native England after spending time in Rome as a Catholic missionary. He was arrested in 1594 and later taken to the Tower to be tortured.  Gerard wrote about his experiences in horrifying detail:

"...a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them. The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it...sometime after one o'clock, I think, I fell into a faint. How long I was unconscious I don't know, but I think it was long, for the men held my body up or put the wicker steps under my feet until I came to. Then they heard me pray and immediately let me down again. And they did this every time I fainted - eight or nine times that day - before it struck five... little later they took me down. My legs and feet were not damaged, but it was a great effort to stand upright."

Gerard escaped from the Tower in 1597 and hid for eight years until he fled the country. 

The Rack Was The Torture Device Of Choice
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The rack - used to stretch prisoners, dislocate joints, and rip limbs from their sockets -  inflicted pain as a means of forcing heretics to renounce their faith during the 16th and 17th centuries. Sixteenth-century Protestant Anne Askew underwent the rack several times while confined at the Tower of London and wrote about her experiences in a diary that was secretly taken out of the prison. Anne refused to renounce Protestantism and, "Because I lay still and did not cry, my Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands till I was nigh dead...."

Anne was sentenced to death and burned at the stake in 1546. She was carried to the stake and placed on a seat before the fire was lit due to her weakened state. 

Guy Fawkes, failed Gunpowder Plot participant, only lasted 30 minutes on the rack before his "muscles and joints pulled and stretched, till the ropes bit into his ropes and ankles, chafing them till blisters were raised and broken." The rack worked to a certain extent and Fawkes told his torturers his real name but he continued to withhold the names of his accomplices.